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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 54 back to contents
Phonics: Where has the National Literacy Strategy Really Got To?Victoria Robinson


It is surprisingly difficult to work out what the DfES is really currently recommending as best practice in the teaching of literacy and of phonics in particular. This note draws on relevant recent publications by the DfES and OFSTED to clarify the current official thinking on best practice in the teaching of literacy in primary schools.

The NLS has been confused from the outset, mainly because of politics within the DfES and the academic establishment. There are many people in the DfES and in university education departments who were trained in the whole language and analytic phonics methods and who could not bring themselves to drop these methods even in the face of much solid evidence that a ‘pure’ synthetics phonics approach to teaching literacy is significantly more effective for virtually all children. The NLS ‘eclectic’ approach was devised to fudge the issue, promoting multiple reading strategies to be taught in parallel, so that the proponents of each method could find and teach what they wanted. The pamphlet ‘An End to Illiteracy’, by Tom Burkard of the Promethean Trust, is excellent for background on the ‘reading wars’ and how they have affected the development of the NLS.

Over the past two years, however, the impact of sustained criticism by OFSTED of the design and implementation of the NLS has led to substantial modifications of the approach to teaching literacy promoted by the NLS, bringing it much closer to a ‘pure’ synthetic phonics approach. Rather unhelpfully, the DfES has presented this in a low-key way as interpretation and clarification rather than as a revision of the strategy, probably to save face.

The rest of this note explains the OFSTED criticisms and the resulting evolution in DfES recommendations.

The NLS in practice

Good objective evaluation of the NLS has come from the work of OFSTED, which has regularly published papers commenting on the NLS on the basis of the findings from its programme of inspections of all state primary schools in England. The most recent and most comprehensive of these papers is ‘The National Literacy Strategy: the first four years’, published in 2002.

The OFSTED evaluation is fairly critical of the NLS and points out a number of weaknesses in its design and implementation, in particular:

·               The ‘searchlights’ model of reading places too much emphasis on a broad range of decoding strategies and not enough on phonic decoding:

The ‘searchlights’ model proposed in the framework has not been effective enough in terms of illustrating where the intensity of the ‘searchlights’ should fall at the different stages of learning to read. While the full range of strategies is used by fluent readers, beginning readers need to learn how to decode effortlessly, using their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences and the skills of blending sounds together. The importance of these crucial skills and knowledge has not been communicated clearly enough to teachers. The result has been an approach to word-level work which diffuses teaching at the earliest stages, rather than concentrating it on phonics (para 58).

Furthermore, as a result of inadequate NLS guidance on phonics:

·               Teachers are not teaching phonic knowledge and skills systematically and speedily from YR (Main findings)

·               In guided reading, teachers are not placing enough emphasis on teaching word- and sentence level objectives, in particular the application of phonic knowledge and skills (Main findings)

·               Teachers are failing to teach and revise phonics skills regularly through to Y4 (Main findings)

The OFSTED report had relatively little to say on spelling, but noted in the section on the evaluation of teaching quality that:

Strengths of the good teaching included:

·               Direct and effective teaching of phonics as a free-standing element

·               Skilful guided writing with an appropriate focus on segmenting phonemes for spelling, leading to good development of pupils’ phonological knowledge to help them write independently (para 94)

OFSTED also noted critically that the NLS has not been effective in bringing boys’ attainment up to the level of girls’ attainment.

In summary, while the report was generally supportive of the principle and much of the implementation of the NLS, it made clear that the NLS failed to promote adequate teaching of phonics and of the proper application of phonics as the primary strategy for both reading and spelling.

OFSTED also made clear that tackling these and other problems with the NLS required further development of the strategy (para 153). It also criticised the way the DfES has tackled emerging weaknesses by issuing extra guidance and materials instead of revising and improving the NLS itself. The OFSTED view is that this has made it difficult for schools to take an overview of all the elements and this has adversely affected the coherence of teaching.

Improving the teaching and application of phonics

In response to this criticism, the DfES held a seminar on phonics in 2003. For this a DfES paper was produced clarifying the interpretation and application of the NLS: ‘Teaching phonics in the National Literacy Strategy’ (TPNLS – available at ). This paper is very important, because it made some very significant but under-reported changes to the NLS.

First of all (on page 3), it clarified the elements of the ‘searchlights’ model, defining them as:

·               Fast automatic phonic decoding

·               The recognition of words and word parts, particularly morphemic segments and boundaries to make sense of and complete phonic blending

·               Predictions from knowledge of syntax to make sense of strings of words, identify sense-making syntactic boundaries in sentences, and read with fluency and expression appropriate to the text

·               Predictions from context to aid comprehension

The qualifying clauses on the second, third and fourth strategies make clear that the second strategy is to be applied only after the words have been sounded and blended as far as possible, and the third and fourth strategies are not to be applied at word level at all, only at higher levels after the individual words have been read.

The DfES has therefore made clear that fast automatic phonic decoding is the primary searchlight for reading. Word and word-part recognition have a place only as a supplement to phoneme recognition and blending; predictive strategies have no place at all until after words have been read. Unfortunately, however, confusion about this continues, as is evident from statements made by Kevan Collins, Director of the Primary National Strategy, to the parliamentary Select Committee on 8 December 2004. Although he did say ‘the priority of information when you are young is developing the phonics knowledge’, he also implied that all four ‘searchlights’ strategies (and pictures) should be used from the start for word-identification. He did not seem to be conveying the same message as the TPNLS paper.

Following on from the points in the TPNLS paper which are mentioned above is a discussion of writing: the paper says, the searchlights model is also applied inversely to the teaching of writing (page 4): in other words, the primary searchlight for writing is fast automatic phonic encoding, supplemented where necessary at word level by the use of known spellings of words and word parts.

Further clarifications of the recommended approach to teaching reading and spelling are scattered through TPNLS:

At Key Stage 1, there should be strong and systematic emphasis on the teaching of phonics and other word level skills. Pupils should be taught to

·               Discriminate between the separate sounds in words

·               Learn the letters and letter combinations most commonly used to spell those sounds

·               Read words by sounding and blending their separate parts

·               Write words by combining the spelling patterns of their sounds (page 5)

Phonic knowledge and skills should be taught and practised to a level where decoding and spelling using phoneme-grapheme representations become habitual and operate at the level of tacit knowledge (page 5)

There is accumulating empirical evidence to show that, where phonics is taught systematically in Reception, children learn very quickly (page 9)

Children should be taught as quickly as possible to identify, segment and blend phonemes, and this should be taught to them directly, not left to inference or invention. (page 5)

Even those children who are competent in phonics at the end of Key Stage 1 need to continue to exercise their skills of segmentation.

TPNLS thus makes clear that the DfES has finally come round to recommending a phonics-driven approach to reading and spelling, and has moved away from the eclectic, multi-strategy approach which was previously favoured. But, as indicated above, this message does not come out clearly from Kevan Collins. There will not be clarity in the classroom while these mixed messages continue.

One major recommendation included in the DfES paper is that schools should adopt an explicit phonics programme such as the DfES’s own Progression in Phonics, or a commercial programme such as Jolly Phonics, POPAT or Phono-Graphix, as a means of securing more effective teaching and more rapid progression.

The DfES is also recommending the acceleration of phonics teaching, in line with the studies of Jolly Phonics and other programmes, which have shown that teaching around six sounds a week from the very beginning is much more effective than the pace previously recommended in the NLS.

As before, however, the DfES is trying to save face, and so has not made any changes to the main NLS to reflect what actually amounts to a very substantial change in the recommended approach to teaching literacy. Instead it is implementing change slowly by issuing more guidance to LEAs, more supplementary teaching materials, and by stating that it intends to develop a scheme for teaching spelling. Unfortunately this means that many schools will not even be aware of the changes, and will carry on using less effective approaches and inferior teaching materials.

There is also the accumulating body of evidence on the advantages of systematic (synthetic) phonics over ‘eclectic’ approaches from large-scale studies in South Gloucestershire, Clackmannanshire1 and elsewhere, including:

·               Significant increase in levels of attainment in reading and especially spelling

·               Dramatic reduction in the incidence of dyslexia and specific learning difficulties, virtually eliminating the need for remedial help

·               Equalisation of attainment of boys and girls

Much information and many links on these studies can be found on the websites of the Literacy Trust ( and of the Reading Reform Foundation (

From this it does appear that there is an opportunity for even high-achieving schools to improve their pupils’ performance.

This can also be done rapidly and with relatively little effort, since programmes such as Jolly Phonics are already fully developed with a comprehensive range of teaching and classroom materials and with a programme of conferences and training.2


1 The Scottish Executive Education Department is completely revising the literacy approach for Scottish primary schools to adopt the synthetics approach tested in the large scale Clackmannanshire study.

2 The Early Years forum on the TES website also contains a great deal of useful advice on using Jolly Phonics, which seems to be the best developed and most widely used programme.

The following article about Fiona Nevola’s ‘Our Right to Read’ project arrived just too late for inclusion in the last Newsletter, though we made brief mention of the project. We now include the article in full.




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